Do you or a loved one struggle with depression? As Christians, sometimes we find ourselves wondering why we can’t simply pray ourselves out of depression. Join Alicia and her guest, Dr. Michelle Bengston, as they discuss the physical, emotional, and spiritual components to christian depression, share bible verses that have helped them along their journeys, and share what we need to do in order to respond to depression from a Christ-centered perspective.
Dr. Michelle Bengtson is the author of multiple books, including the award winning Hope Prevails book and bible study guide. Her ministry's goal is to restore hope to renew minds and to empower others to live in their God given identity.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, you are not alone. At the end of this episode, Alicia shares a few of her recommendations for next steps and resources you can use to help with your struggle.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
- [05:18] Dr. Michelle’s background and experience with depression
- [09:28] Dr. Michelle’s introduction to the spiritual side of depression
- [12:05] How Dr. Michelle saw bible verses ring true in her struggle with depression
- [16:06] The multi-layered contributors to depression
- [20:36] Ways the church can support Christians in depression
- [25:20] How Dr. Michelle went from feeling joy oppressed to grateful
- [28:41] How to cope with the lies that depression often tells us
- [32:48] How to approach tough conversations about God with our children
- [35:09] Addressing God’s truth with a loved one who is struggling with depression
- [39:35] Dr. Michelle’s advice for reestablishing your identity in Christ
- [46:16] Alicia’s takeaways and suggestions for next steps for those that struggle with depression
[05:18] Dr. Michelle’s background and experience with depression
Dr. Michelle grew up in a home with a mother who was depressed throughout her childhood. Without knowing about depression, she had assumed it was just the way she was. It wasn't until she became a board certified clinical neuropsychologist that she realized her mother had been suffering with depression for decades.
Dr. Michelle began to experience depression firsthand during the first two weeks after giving birth to her first son. Her mother had called to ask how the baby was, and Michelle burst into tears without being able to explain why. Her mother requested she put her husband on the phone, and suggested that he call her doctor right away to talk about postpartum depression.
At that point, Dr. Michelle had diagnosed hundreds, if not thousands of women with postpartum depression, but wasn’t able to recognize it in herself. She notes that this is what depression often does to us, making it so we don't even recognize ourselves. She scheduled an appointment with her physician, was prescribed appropriate medication, and over time, it dissipated.
A few years later, while she was working at her private practice, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Since she was very young, she had adapted the coping skill of jumping in and doing as much as she could when a crisis hit, so when they received the cancer diagnosis, she immediately began working more to make up for lost income. She was working roughly 100 hours a week, staying until midnight and returning at three in the morning. After a year, her body couldn't handle it anymore, and she doubled over in pain while seeing patients. She ended up being put on bed rest for five months, having two emergency surgeries, and was constantly given IV hydration and nutrition. She shares that the longer she stayed in that sick bed, the more she fell into a severe valley of depression, worse than what she had experienced during postpartum. She remembers crying out to God and saying, “If this is going to be my life, I'm not sure I want to go on living.”
While she was in bed, all she could really do was sleep, pray, and listen to praise and worship music. Once she was stable, she remembers trying all the things that she would normally suggest to her patients, like exercise, therapy, medication and rest. These practices helped, but they weren’t enough this time to totally take the depression away. She began to believe the lie that she was immune to joy, and began to reach out to God, asking Him to show her what she was missing.
[09:28] Dr. Michelle’s introduction to the spiritual side of depression
Initially, Dr. Michelle didn’t realize there was a spiritual side of depression. When it began to crop up in her own life and in the lives of her patients, she began a several year journey of asking God to show her what it was all about and how she could combat it. This journey ultimately led to her book, Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor's Personal Journey Through Depression.
What she found interesting was that the publishers had shown an interest in her book two weeks before her medical crisis, which spurred her introduction to the spiritual side of depression. While working on the book, she became so sick that she had to shelve it for a time. She expressed that she was thankful she shelved her work during that time because without the touch of her personal experience, she feels the book would have gone to press as a very sterile, clinically-written book. Her own season of depression increased the compassion factor, and now when people read it, they feel seen and heard. Now, she can look back on that horrible time in her life and thank God for it because she can see how God used what the enemy intended for harm for good instead.
[12:05] How Dr. Michelle saw bible verses ring true in her struggle with depression
In her book Hope Prevails, Dr. Michelle references John 10:10, discussing how the enemy comes to kill, steal, and destroy, and applies the verse to the idea of depression, and how it kills our joy, steals our peace, and tries to destroy our identity.
In her own battle with depression, Dr. Michelle found that a majority of her struggles came back to her thought life. She shares that if we’re not actively, continually taking every thought captive, as noted in 2 Corinthians 10:5, that we can succumb to the lies of the enemy, just as she believed the lie that she was immune to joy.
Dr. Michelle shares that we have between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day, which includes thousands of thoughts that we're not even aware of. Over time, the Holy Spirit brought her back to Psalm 30:5, reminding her that although weeping may last for the night, we have the promise that His joy comes in the morning. In that verse she realized that if that was true for God's children, and she is one of His children, then she couldn’t be joy immune.
If we're not quick to discern the voice of the enemy versus the voice of God, then we will accept those lies, and then our emotions are the outward manifestation of the thoughts we believe. In moments of despair or depression, when the enemy tries to make us believe those things, and we don’t stop to compare it to what God says is true, then he is able to steal our peace through depression and anxiety.
[16:06] The multi-layered contributors to depression
In her book, Dr. Michelle refers to contributors to depression as ‘seeds’ of depression. They can come from many different areas in life; genetics, chemical changes, modeled behavior, and spiritual contributors.
While one of these contributors, or seeds, of depression may not be enough to cause depression, they can overlap and increase our risk of depression significantly, especially in moments of overwhelming stress. We have a God that has given us the tools and the power we need to combat the enemy, so when big stressors come and we begin to struggle with depression, we may have to step back from other things so that we still give enough attention to the appropriate self care of our body, mind and spiritual practices.
[20:36] Ways the church can support Christians in depression
Within the church, we can sometimes hinder other people's healing in the area of depression because we want to try to fix them and tell them the right thing, like God’s got you, you're gonna be okay. In her book, Dr. Michelle describes her experience with similar interactions and how God had to work in her to realize the type of healing that she needed.
While going through her season of depression, Dr. Michelle describes feeling like she didn't have access to the joy that so many other people seemed to have. She was reading everything she could about reclaiming joy and how God says that Jesus came to give us that joy. She felt like the constant message was that she had to be grateful in order to have joy, but through a depressed lens, all she heard was “It's your own fault, because you're not being grateful.”
Dr. Michelle believes that, as the church, we need to be very careful of the message that we send to people struggling with depression and other mental health concerns. Too often she hears the message similar to if you just prayed more or dealt with unconfessed sin in your life, God will get you through this because He can do the impossible. While all of that might be true, would we say that to someone whose leg was just amputated? Would we say that to someone going through chemotherapy?
Depression is a medical condition, just like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, but we don't tend to treat it that way. We have a tendency to treat depression like it's something that people are in control of. Often, for Christians with depression, they need to learn what areas they can control and seek help for those areas that they can't.
[25:20] How Dr. Michelle went from feeling joy oppressed to grateful
When Dr. Michelle experienced her seasons of depression, she felt joy immune, or unable to feel joy, and notes that the shift came from moments of desperation.
Desperation often makes us willing. Dr. Michelle recalls coming to a place where she was so desperate, and felt that if things didn't improve that she wouldn’t want to go on living. What kept her going was that she had two young boys and made up her mind that she was not going to let the enemy steal from them like he had from her. While her own mother hadn’t harmed herself, she wasn’t able to really fill a motherly role until Dr. Michelle had moved out of the home and she began seeking appropriate medical care.
So in moments when she didn't have the motivation to do something for the sake of herself, she had the motivation to do it on behalf of her children. She recalls that it came down to small decisions in the moment, choosing to get up and brush her teeth, choosing to take her vitamins, and choosing to be in God's word. When you're depressed, daily activities that would not normally seem like a big deal begin to feel overwhelming, and there were days where they felt too hard to accomplish, but over time, her desperation made her willing. She describes taking ‘baby steps’ and accomplishing what she could on a day by day basis.
[28:41] How to cope with the lies that depression often tells us
When we’re in the depths of depression, we are more susceptible to the lies that the enemy tells us. Alicia asks Dr. Michelle about her experience regarding asking God to help us stop wallowing in the lies we’ve been led to believe.
Dr. Michelle shares that it's impossible to deal with and combat the lies unless we know the truth, so our responsibility lies in being in God’s word. In John 14, when Jesus left Earth, He said, I have to go, but in my place I'm going to send a comforter who will remind you of all truth. However, if we don’t take on the responsibility of reading the truth, we can't be reminded of something we've not already been exposed to. Our job is to be in God's word so that when situations like depression happen, the Holy Spirit can remind us of truth and that we are victorious in Christ Jesus, that we are more than an overcomer, that we are loved with an everlasting love, and that there is therefore now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus.
We can also seek medical help, go to a therapist, eat right and exercise, but over decades of work in private practice Dr. Michelle has found that if the spiritual side isn’t also addressed, the situation doesn’t always improve.
[32:48] How to approach tough conversations about God with our children
Sometimes talking to our children about God during times of depression and figuring out their faith can be a sensitive discussion. Alicia shares that the enemy knows this, and is after our children, maybe more now than ever before. The things that our children are exposed to now are way different than what past generations were dealing with. Alicia shares that one of the most important things she feels we can be doing as parents is to be praying a lot, both in and out of the presence of our children, to be praying scripture over our children, and thanking God in advance for what we are trusting Him to do.
Dr. Michelle shared similar feelings, and added that she doesn’t advocate for simply preaching Bible verses to them, as that was not helpful for her. People would just give her a verse like, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world,” which is a beautiful verse, but the help didn’t go any deeper than that. It made her feel like no one was really understanding what she was going through. She believes we can speak things over and to our children without making it sound like we're cold quoting Bible verses. More importantly, we're speaking the truth over them as we're praying for them. We're declaring out loud to the enemy, you do not have a place here. My child was bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus.
Alicia and Dr. Michelle agree that one of the most important things is that we're standing in truth, and that we are speaking that over our children, so that they are hearing it, and that we come alongside from a place of compassion. We don’t need to have all the answers, but we can say things like, I don't love you any less, because of what you're going through. And I'm here to walk with you through it. What they hear is, I still love you, this doesn't change how I feel about you. As parents who have gone through it, we can also say that even though we've gone through it, we know that their situation is different from ours, but that we are willing to be a hand to hold. That they are not alone. So even when they feel alone, which most of us do when we go through depression, they are not alone, and that we are going to pray that God continues to comfort them and guide them through.
[35:09] Addressing God’s truth with a loved one who is struggling with depression
Dr. Michelle originally had a chapter on how to help a depressed loved one in her book, Hope Prevails, but was over the word count limit and the chapter was cut. She remembers really grieving the loss of this chapter because it felt just as important as the rest of the book, so she made it available on her website.
[39:35] Dr. Michelle’s advice for reestablishing your identity in Christ
Alicia asks Dr. Michelle what advice she would give to women who feel stuck, who want to begin to regain their identity in Christ during or after a season of depression.
Dr. Michelle shares that one of the first things you can do is to ask the Lord to reveal that path to you, to bring people alongside you who will support you, and to uncover the lies that you may believe that are impacting your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. It’s important to be aware that those beliefs can become so entrenched that it makes it hard to believe God's truth, but that we need to declare God's word.
Dr. Michelle shares that she had been a believer for decades before she experienced depression, and wants to let you know that you are not alone if you are struggling with the same things as a Chrisitan. No matter where you are in your journey, she shares that today is a good day to take a baby step and just pray that God will show you who you are in Christ.
When Dr. Michelle was in the midst of a deep depression, she prayed for three things. She prayed that God would give her a more accurate perspective of Him, that He would show her His perspective of her, and that He would help her adopt His perspective of her. She notes that it took about 12 months for some of those seeds to start making a difference, but that over time they did. If you’re not sure where to start, Dr. Michelle offers these questions to you for you to use, reminding you that God will answer in His time and in His way. It's important that we don't put God in a box and decide how he has to answer.
[46:16] Alicia’s takeaways and suggestions for next steps for those that struggle with depression
Alicia shares that, as someone who has walked through depression personally, this was a very soul touching kind of conversation for her. She could feel the pain and hopelessness that Dr. Michelle spoke of when talking about her personal story with depression, and found it a bit overwhelming to sit in at times.
Alicia really enjoyed the hope that Dr. Michelle offered about walking through the seasons of depression and reminding us that it’s not a ‘quick fix’ situation. It’s our responsibility to find the motivation to get help for ourselves, whether it’s internal or external motivation, like wanting our kids to have healthy coping skills modeled for them. Either way, it’s important to remember that it’s going to take some time to walk through. Alicia also points out that she liked that Dr. Michelle shared different factors that can contribute to our struggles with depression, and how they increase our risk for depression but don’t necessarily determine that we will experience depression.
For those that struggle with depression, Alicia shares a few of her recommendations, as well as a prayer for anyone walking through a depressive season. Dr. Michelle’s book, Hope Prevails, was written through the lens of someone who has personally struggled with depression, and Alicia highly recommends reading this book to anyone who is struggling, has struggled, or knows someone battling with depression.
She also suggests talking to a licensed counselor, someone who can give you an educated, unbiased perspective and listening ear when you’re going through different seasons of life. She recommends the Chrisitan counselors at Faithful Counseling.
Connect with Dr. Michelle:
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